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Greek Art in Rome: from spolia opima to nobilia opera


Monday, 4 November 2019 to Wednesday, 29 January 2020
Total hours: 50
Hours of lectures: 40
Hours of supplementary teaching: 10

Examination procedure

  • Report or seminar


General knowledge of the history of Greek and Roman Art. This class is for undergraduate students.


The class focuses on the reuse of ancient Greek works of art in Roman times, a widespread practice, attested by written sources as largely as by archaeological evidence, on which current scholarship has reached opposite conclusions. Regardless of the fact that the reuse is explained in terms of art collection (Bounia 2004; Rutledge 2012), or, on the other hand, resemantization deprived of any aesthetic purpose (Hölscher 2006; Bravi 2012), most of the interpretations provided tend to be one-sided, although they could be combined without any inconsistency, and mainly based on literary accounts. Partially as a consequence of the lack of a corpus, the material evidence is therefore rarely accorded its proper place in the scholarly debate (Cirucci 2010; Adornato et al. 2018).

This category of artifacts actually challenges the modern canon of nobilia opera, since the pattern of reception identified for the Greek masterpieces transferred to Rome in antiquity cannot be applied unquestioningly to the anonymous and more ordinary sculptures found in Roman contexts of reuse. Are they “possibly acceptable canonical objects” for ancient viewers and contemporary art-historians? Were they selected on the basis of “connoisseurial knowledge”? Do they perhaps belong to a competing canon of luxury items and status symbols, as recent research on imported artifacts in Rome seems to suggest (see e.g. Swetnam Burland 2007)? In order to overcome the limits of the current state of the art, and to address the specific issues aroused by the material, the class will adopt an interdisciplinary approach, combining historical, archaeological, epigraphic and scientific analyses.

The class will address the investigation of the original function and meaning of the reused Greek sculptures, the reconstruction of their afterlives in the new Roman contexts, and the study of their collecting history in modern times.

During the semester, visits will be scheduled to museums and archaeological sites in Italy and abroad; at the Laboratory SAET the class will provide practice on ceramic objects.

Educational goals:

Acquisition of notions of Greek and Roman Art History, mainly related to the possession, display and fruition of Greek artworks in Roman times. History of the taste, accumulation, and collection of antiquities, and formation of a rhetorical canon of ancient artists in literary sources.

Bibliographical references

Adornato, G., I. Bald Romano, G. Cirucci, A. Poggio (eds.). 2018. Restaging Greek Artworks in Roman Times. Milano.

Bounia, A. 2004. The nature of classical collecting. Collectors and Collections, 100 BCE-100 CE. Bodmin.

Bravi, A. 2012. Ornamenta urbis. Opere d'arte greche negli spazi romani. Bari.

Cirucci, G. 2010. "Sculture greche di VI-IV secolo reimpiegate nella Roma antica: una proposta di sintesi." RIASA 60, 2010, 9-58.

Hölscher, T. 2006. “Greek Styles and Greek Art in Augustan Rome: Issues of the Present versus Records of the Past.” In Porter 2006, 239-259.

Porter, J, ed. 2006. Classical Pasts. The Classical Traditions of Greece and Rome, edited by J. Porter. Princeton.

Rutledge, S. 2012. Ancient Rome as a Museum: Power, Identity, and the Culture of Collecting. Oxford.

Swetnam Burland, M. 2007. “Egyptian. Objects, Roman Contexts: A Taste for Aegyptiaca in Italy.” In Nile Into Tiber: Egypt in the Roman World, edited by L. Bricault et al., 113-136. Leiden.